In the age of social media, anyone can access a deluge of information with just a click of the mouse or touch of the computer screen. The problem is that a large chunk of what they find is inaccurate. And, increasingly, much of the misinformation is intentionally designed to mislead or alter your opinion without your knowledge or consent. Luckily, there are fact-checking and digital media literacy resources available for those who want to sort fact from fiction.
Based here in the Tampa Bay Area, the nonprofit Poynter Institute for Media Studies has developed MediaWise, a growing digital literacy initiative with a global reach.
Poynter and partners such as Google, Facebook, and the Stanford History Education Group teach online users to scrutinize posts and websites with a skeptical eye similar to that of a trained journalist who knows how to spot red flags that indicate potential misinformation.
This month, Poynter and its partners are expanding the initiative by rolling out MediaWise for Seniors, a virtual program designed to help the over-50 age group wade through information circulating online.
AARP, former “Good Morning America” host Joan Lunden, and CNN and PBS news anchor Christiane Amanpour are all helping to spread the word about the upcoming launch, which will happen via live-stream on the PolitiFact Facebook page.
Recently, MediaWise senior multimedia reporter Alex Mahadevan, the project lead for MediaWise for Seniors, discussed the program with 83 Degrees Media
The following Q&A interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
83 Degrees (83D): To start, talk about the beginning of the overall MediaWise program, when it started, the age group(s) it initially targeted, the circumstances that led to it, and what it sought to accomplish?
Alex Mahadevan (AM): MediaWise launched in 2018, funded by Google as part of the Google News Initiative. The genesis of it was research out of the Stanford History Education Group that found major deficiencies in how students were distinguishing real and fake posts and news online. That research was conducted in 2016 and 2017, a time when you saw a lot of misinformation and disinformation being circulated on the Internet. There was a need there because even though Gen Zers are digital natives, they grew up with iPads, they still were having a lot of trouble navigating information online.
It grew out of that. It originally had a very narrow demographic target -- middle and high schoolers -- and the original plan was to try to reach 1 million students with these basic lessons in separating fact from fiction online. It has seen a lot of evolution. It has a sort of start-up vibe to it. We are always looking to expand our reach.
In January of this year, we launched the MediaWise Voter Project. The idea behind that is teaching first-time voters the same type of media literacy lessons that we taught Gen Z, so that when they get these ads and see these posts online, it doesn’t negatively impact the information they have before they go to the ballot box. We’ve also expanded it to include anything a first-time voter would need to know: how to register to vote, how to check if you are registered to vote, the difference between an open and a closed primary, whether you can take a selfie in a voting booth. We not only expanded what we teach but expanded the demographic to college students.
83D: What led to the program for seniors and what makes that age group at a higher risk for believing misleading or false information online?
AM: Anecdotally speaking, I oversaw the in-person training and speaking for MediaWise’s Gen Z project. I would travel the country; I went to at least a dozen states and probably taught upward of 10,000 students. Every time I went to a school, I would have a librarian or a teacher, at one school it was the gym teacher, who would run up to me afterward and say, ‘This is all great stuff, but I think my mother-in-law might need this more than my students.’ Anecdotally, we saw a need.
When you look at it, this is a demographic that is more civic-minded; they want to be good citizens. They are more likely to vote so they generally can be easy targets for disinformation from bad actors trying to meddle in an election. There was a study from 2019 that showed people 65 and older are more likely to share disinformation.
It’s the fastest-growing demographic online. They have more time; they have more money and they have less experience with technology; so, they are just a more vulnerable population. Algorithms and the filter bubbles you can get caught in on social media are more effective on this demographic because there is research that shows this is a demographic that experiences loneliness a lot more than other demographics. So, they are looking for more like-minded, more confirming opinions online.
83D: The program for seniors is launching in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. How big a focus is clearing up and correcting false information floating around online about COVID-19 for the program?
AM: It’s a huge focus. We were working on the program before March, so it was before this was really a focus of the general public in the United States. So, we were not launching this because of coronavirus. But with the coronavirus pandemic thrust upon the U.S. public right now, it is the perfect program to fill the demand for teaching older Americans how to separate fact from fiction.
Think about it, there was an Arizona man who died after drinking fish tank cleaner because it contained chloroquine. There was some misleading information out there that led him to drink that fish tank cleaner.
There are all these scams out there about miracle cures. There are faulty masks being sold. Beyond that, there’s just this huge amount of preliminary research about coronavirus and coronavirus cures. There’s all this data we see every day on infections, percentages of positive tests, hospital capacity. It makes it very difficult to digest what’s coming at you every day. With the health implications, scams, the fact it’s going to be an issue in the election, it is the perfect storm for misinformation.
83D: How is COVID going to impact how MediaWise for Seniors is conducted for the participants?
AM: It’s funny you bring that up because we just happened to be developing it to run remotely before the coronavirus pandemic even took hold. We have plans for a really awesome YouTube public service announcement about the consequences of sharing misinformation. That’s something that will live on YouTube, which is a really big platform for this demographic.
I’m developing two courses through the Poynter Institute’s News University that will tackle everything from what misinformation is, to using reverse image searches to find out whether an image you’re seeing is misinformation, to how to talk to your family at Thanksgiving dinner table about misinformation. These are all online courses. We’re going to do an intensive class with about 40 older Americans first and then that will be available to anyone as a self-guided course people can go through and take quizzes.
We’re trying to reach this demographic in as many ways as possible. We’re trying to make as big of an impact as possible. We’re doing two Facebook Live sessions to try to reach upwards of a million people if possible. On top of that, we have our ambassadors Joan Lunden and Christiane Amanpour spreading the message digitally.
As a former news reporter and county government reporter in Sarasota, a place with a huge number of retirees, I spent countless hours in neighborhood associations, etc. Ideally, I would love to go someplace like The Villages and do in-person training because it is a better way to connect with this demographic. But I think the way we designed it right now is going to be equally as effective remotely for the time being.
A challenge with the curriculum is trying to include the most recent examples of misinformation out there. Because there’s so much, I could create a course based on something this week, and by next week, we’d see a whole new barrage of examples.
83D: Talk about how the program will focus on the upcoming 2020 election?
AM: The election is really the big moment in 2020 that we were going to be targeting with this project. You’ve seen the stories about how bad actors were meddling in the 2016 election, setting up fake Facebook pages and the like. It was bad in 2016. It was worse in 2018. The experts I talk to on a regular basis think 2020 will be even worse as far as the types of misinformation we see out there.
As I said, this older demographic is way more likely to vote. They are much more conscientious about voting. They’re the ones seeing a lot of this stuff on social media. Potentially if it has a real impact on a demographic that is voting in more numbers, it could affect our democracy. So, the election is a huge thing we are looking out for right now.
83D: What are some good steps to follow to sort out good from bad information online?
AM: One important thing is to check your emotions as you see things on social media or anywhere online. Check your biases. If you see something that immediately makes you say, ‘Oh, I’m right!’ or confirms your worldview, then you should probably check it out.
The same goes for anything that gives you a deep emotional feeling, whether it is anger or laughing out loud. This is a way that people unknowingly spread misinformation because you are programmed to share something that gives you an emotional feeling. So, if you feel that, you need to stop and try to think logically.
When you encounter something like this, try to think like a journalist. That’s what we try to preach -- ask who, what, when, where, and why. Asking that first question, ‘Who is it that posted this?’ can really help you decide whether you want to trust that or whether you want to share it.
In the past, we’ve worked with the Stanford History Education Group and they’ve done a lot of work encouraging people to think like fact-checkers. They’ve coined this term ‘lateral reading.’ When people see a post or read a website they normally read vertically, read all the information on a page, take it in, maybe share it. The idea behind lateral reading is to stop, get off that page, open up a new tab and search for information about who posted that, or who is behind the website.
It really teaches you how to read the Internet like a fact-checker and not take everything you see at face value, to open up a new tab and keep searching. It’s as simple as looking for red flags while reading something online. Are there a lot of grammatical errors, typos, a sensational headline? Is there a reporter listed? Is there a byline on the piece, a date, or anything that seems to give it more credibility? It’s trying to stop yourself when you see something online and be more discerning.
83D: In addition to MediaWise, what are some other good resources you recommend people use to separate fact from fiction online?
AM: The Stanford History Education Group has a curriculum called Civic Online Reasoning that is aimed at middle and high schoolers, but it honestly works for everyone. There are tons of lessons in there about whether you should trust a site or not. Is a fossil fuel company behind this climate change website? Then you have a problem. It’s great for general media literacy knowledge.
On YouTube, there’s a great series called Navigating Digital Information by author John Green. It’s something we partnered with them on. They take a deep look at fact-checking the Internet. John Green is an author for younger people but it’s really engaging for all ages.
And then my favorite resource is something called the Verification Handbook. It’s something I think everyone should look at even if they only take away one piece out of it. It’s a handbook on fact-checking the things you see online. It's edited by BuzzFeed reporter Craig Silverman and it has work by some of the best disinformation reporters and researchers out there. They teach you how to do a reverse image search, how to find the other accounts someone is posting on, whether they are impersonating someone. When we talk about fact-checking like a journalist, that is a good place to go and pull some lessons.
For more information, visit these websites: